News flash: McCain’s a free trader

May 30, 2007, 5:11 PM UTC

John McCain was the warmup act Tuesday night at the Wall Street Journal‘s D5 technology conference at the lush Four Seasons Aviara in Carlsbad, Calif., north of San Diego. It was my second time seeing McCain in action, the first being at Fortune’s Brainstorm conference in Aspen, Colo., last summer. I like McCain, so I was generally pleased with his performance tonight. I feel like his energy level is down slightly, which isn’t an irrelevant gauge of a candidate’s probability of success. That very likely could have to do with the fact that he spends a fair amount of time discussing a dour and unpopular topic, the war in Iraq, which he continues to support. Still, what’s so appealing about McCain is that he speaks his mind. Over the course of the evening he somewhat won over an largely liberal tech-industry crowd.

I won’t go into McCain’s war policy, though many of us chewed it over during dinner, after his speech. Instead, nuggets about his economic policies:

* McCain is an unabashed free trader. He likes to say that regulations usually bring about intended as well as unintended consequences. He specifically said the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which he helped write, is “irrelevant” today.

* Asked if patent reform is high on his list, he replied, “No.”

* McCain says he’d reach out to successful Americans to get them involved in his admininistration. Asked to name names, he offered up Cisco (CSCO) CEO John Chambers and Microsoft (CEO) Steve Ballmer, both of whom were in the room. To read Roger Parloff’s article in the last issue of Fortune, Microsoft Takes on the Free World, Ballmer probably will be excited to know of McCain’s lack of interest in patent reform.)

* On the subject of immigration reform, McCain again flashed his free-trade credentials, saying, “I worry about nativism and protectionism,” implying he’s more comfortable than most politicians with foreign companies and countries investing in U.S. assets.

Do these political speeches at business conferences translate into votes? Can you picture John Chambers as Secretary of Commerce? Sure.